Background: Little is known about the levels of variation in lignin or other wood related genes in Salix, a genus that is being increasingly used for biomass and biofuel production. The lignin biosynthesis pathway is well characterized in a number of species, including the model tree Populus. We aimed to transfer the genomic resources already available in Populus to its sister genus Salix to assess levels of variation within genes involved in wood formation. Results: Amplification trials for 27 gene regions were undertaken in 40 Salix taxa. Twelve of these regions were sequenced. Alignment searches of the resulting sequences against reference databases, combined with phylogenetic analyses, showed the close similarity of these Salix sequences to Populus, confirming homology of the primer regions and indicating a high level of conservation within the wood formation genes. However, all sequences were found to vary considerably among Salix species, mainly as SNPs with a smaller number of insertions-deletions. Between 25 and 176 SNPs per kbp per gene region (in predicted exons) were discovered within Salix. Conclusions: The variation found is sizeable but not unexpected as it is based on interspecific and not intraspecific comparison; it is comparable to interspecific variation in Populus. The characterisation of genetic variation is a key process in pre-breeding and for the conservation and exploitation of genetic resources in Salix. This study characterises the variation in several lignocellulose gene markers for such purposes.